The Harlequin Puppet Theatre is a puppet theatre at Rhos-on-Sea, Wales. Britain's oldest permanent puppet theatre, the Harlequin was built in 1958 by the late Eric Bramall and is now run by his partner, Chris Somerville, the only surviving member of the original team. Despite the steady decline of the British seaside holiday, and the general shrinkage of theatre-going The Harlequin still has a loyal family audience who continue to enjoy shows which delight the adults and enthrall the children. For young children this is often their first theatrical experience. Indeed many of the younger parents have never themselves enjoyed live entertainment before. We really do need your help to keep us going until they are allowed to visit us once again.
Our theatre risks permanent closure because. It has always been funded by the theatre ticket sales together with the fees from other puppetry work by Chris and Eric, and since Eric's death in 1996, by Chris alone. Now an OAP Chris no longer has a theatre income nor can he subsidise the theatre from his out of season children's entertainment work which also been curtailed by COVID. Also, despite generous help from friends and well-wishers, what savings Chris had were eaten up by supporting the theatre following the arson attack in 2017 which kept the theatre closed for 6 months.
As the only survivor of the original team Chris, classed as a Sole Trader, cannot access any of the Government funding allocated for Theatre and the Arts, and being of pensionable age he cannot access Government help for the Self Employed. With great frugality it may be possible for one person to survive on a basic Old Age Pension but not to also support and preserve a theatre under enforced shut down.
Your donations will be used to maintain the fabric of the theatre and grounds, and pay the continuing costs of licencing, insurance, utilities and structural maintainance etc. as well as a certain amount of capital expenditure to make the theatre covid-secure in anticipation of the time when we can open again for all the school holiday periods and welcome our faithful audience of children, parents and grandparents to delight in our puppet magic once again.
Britain's First Puppet Theatre
The theatre was built when the British Seaside was most people's holiday of choice and the North Wales coast was a favourite destination for many factory workers of the industrial Midlands and the North. Holidays were staggered throughout the Summer Season which ran, in those days, from Easter to October. This was to benefit industry so that all the factories in an area would close down for the same week each year, along with their service industries. Children were permitted to take leave from school to fit in with their parents' holidays. Many people came to the same resort in the same week every year, probably staying at the same boarding house. At the puppet theatre we welcomed many of the same families year after year, and watched the children grow up. The Harlequin Puppet Theatre played to full houses all the time.
But the decline of British Industry, cheap air travel, package holidays and guaranteed sunshine meant a complete change in the holiday pattern and the slow decline of seaside resorts through the 1960s to the 1980s. The decision to limit children's absence from school to the 6 weeks of the schools' Summer Holidays was the coup de grâce for the traditional seaside holiday, and a more diverse pattern of short breaks and day trips developed.
We Find a New Audience
This was when the Harlequin changed from the long Summer Season to a policy of opening for all school holidays including Half Terms. This proved popular with the many grandparents who had retired to the coast and now welcomed their grandchildren to stay with them during the holidays.
Out of Season North Wales has quite a small resident population, nevertheless we have built up a healthy audience for our shows when we open for the school holidays in February, May, August, October and at Easter and Christmas, and our repertoire allows us to change the show for each holiday. This local following is fortified by families, from Merseyside and Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Shropshire Derbyshire and the Midlands, all on day trips or short holidays with grandparents or on Caravan Parks.
Many of these families come every year, and it is wonderful to see the children growing up, from toddlers to teens, and still enjoying the puppet theatre.
In between theatre seasons Chris subsidises the box office takings by attending schools with Puppet and Punch & Judy Workshops, as well as performing at Fundays, Fetes and Galas.
North Wales is a popular destination for School Residenial Trips and schools frequently book a private performance in the Puppet Theatre while staying in nearby Llandudno. Some schools from Derbyshire, London and Northern Ireland are regulars, some coming each year since the 1980s.
If we can raise £3,000 I think we can survive until Christmas and also have enough funds to make the theatre Pantomime (Covid) ready. I am probably being hopelessly optimistic but you've got to stay hopeful, so that's my goal, it has become a tradition to open on Boxing Day with our pantomime. I think we'll do "Aladdin". So please be as generous as you can - and if you have any influence with the Welsh Assemby then please put in a word for our theatres in Wales. We are all in the same boat.
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In villages, towns and cities across the country, theatres are at the heart of their community. Places to come together, to be inspired and be entertained. Theatres are where our best-loved actors learn their craft and thousands of others learn valuable skills.
But we risk losing this forever.
Theatres saw their main source of income disappear in an instant when they closed in March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Six months later, we still don’t know when they will be able to reopen fully. A decision won’t be made for theatres in England until November at the earliest – too late for most to put on their annual pantomime, which often provides the income to support the theatre for the rest of the year. Nothing is yet known for theatres in Wales.
This ongoing uncertainty puts theatres in a perilous situation. The government’s bailout is spread across all cultural organisations and certainly won’t be enough to save all of the UK’s theatres.
Every day theatres are facing the tough decision to make staff redundant and to close their doors until next year. And there is a real risk that those closures could be permanent.
Without urgent support, we could lose our nation’s amazing theatres. Please help us to make sure our theatres survive this crisis and will be there to be enjoyed by future generations.